Stephen Miller and the Theater of Outrage
The controversy and heated debate over child separation at the southern border continues to rage. But one name in the Trump Administration keeps popping up when the immigration debate flames up; Stephen Miller.
McKay Coppins had been working up a profile on Miller for The Atlantic anyway, but the recent child separation controversy brought even more focus on the presidents Senior Advisor.
In Miller’s view of the electoral landscape, the president is winning anytime the country is focused on immigration—polls and bad headlines be damned. (This explains why Miller is, according to Politico, leading an effort within the administration to plan additional crackdowns on immigrants in the months leading up to the midterm elections.)
Speaking to The New York Times, Miller framed his theory this way: “You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border. And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit. Not 55–45. 60–40. 70–30. 80–20. I’m talking 90–10 on that.”
Of course, if the goal were simply to draw voters’ attention to the border, there are plenty of ways to do it that are less controversial (not to mention, less cruel) than ripping young children from the arms of asylum seekers and sticking them in dystopian-looking detention centers. But for Miller, the public outrage and anger elicited by policies like forced family separation are a feature, not a bug.
A seasoned conservative troll, Miller told me during our interview that he has often found value in generating what he calls “constructive controversy—with the purpose of enlightenment.” This belief traces back to the snowflake-melting and lib-triggering of his youth. As a conservative teen growing up in Santa Monica, he wrote op-eds comparing his liberal classmates to terrorists and musing that Osama Bin Laden would fit in at his high school. In college, he coordinated an “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” These efforts were not calibrated for persuasion; they were designed to agitate. And now that he’s in the White House, he is deploying similar tactics.
Stephen Miller’s highest profile moment so far might well be getting his mike turned off during a bizarre interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union back in January. Writing about it at the time, it was clear Miller was happy to play his role in the media circus as attack dog against any and all Trump critics.
The purpose and the promoted reason for Stephen Miller’s appearance was to get his, and by default Trump’s, comments on the release of the Wolff Fire and Fury book. The 1A issue was to the fallout and public pillaring of Steve Bannon. Miller, having been perceived as a Bannon guy in the past, came forth publicly to add his stab to the public execution of the condemned Bannon’s political future. This was the capping of several days of Trump administration officials professing their loyalty to Trump through condemning of the loathsome Bannon.
Stephen Miller, at 32 years of age, has quickly risen to a high position by any standard of measure, his resume being fairly thin. Before his role in the Trump Campaign and then the White House, the Duke graduate’s highest profile job was communications director for now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Such a background, or lack thereof, leads to speculation that Miller might be where he is based more on his true believer status than actual expertise. Using media invites to go into assault mode on behalf of Trump will do little to dissuade that opinion.
And as the NY Times reports, much of the rancor of the last few days leaves Miller and his like-minded associates not only unmoved, but thrilled that all is going according to plan.
But it was Mr. Trump who pulled Mr. Miller and Mr. Sessions — and their views about immigration — out of the political shadows. In January 2015, when few were watching, Mr. Sessions wrote a 23-page memo that predicted that the next president would most likely be a Republican who spoke to the working class about how immigrants had stolen their jobs.
Most mainstream politicians ignored the memo, but its contents influenced Mr. Trump. At a raucous 2015 rally in Mobile, Ala., he sensed the power of the immigration issue as a crowd of 30,000 supporters roared with approval at his promise to build a wall across the southern border and crack down on illegal immigration.
By then Mr. Sessions and Mr. Miller were the architects of the immigration agenda of the long-shot Trump campaign. In 2016, Mr. Sessions endorsed Mr. Trump for president — his first ever endorsement of a candidate in a primary — and Mr. Miller did as well.
Both men have something else in common: They are largely unfazed by criticism or bad press.
Mr. Sessions is known for proudly holding opinions thought to be retrograde. Under his high school yearbook photo was the caption: “He is a host of debaters in himself.” While serving as Alabama’s attorney general, he supported reviving chain gangs of volunteer inmates and tighter identification requirements for Alabama voters.
Mr. Miller is similarly immune to critiques from establishment Republicans, who often view his immigration positions as far out of the mainstream and politically dangerous. In the recent interview, Mr. Miller dismissed as ignorant the hand-wringing of Republicans about the family separation controversy.
McKay Coppins in his piece reminds us we have seen this purposeful strategy before:
Take the travel ban, for example. During Trump’s first week in office, Miller worked with Steve Bannon to craft an executive order banning travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. Trump signed the order on a Friday afternoon, unleashing chaos at airports across the country, complete with mass protests, wall-to-wall media coverage, and a slew of legal challenges. Afterward, Bannon reportedly boasted that they had enacted the measure on a weekend “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.”
Whether it is immigration debates, behind the scenes advocacy for his policies, or public fights with CNN and the rest of the media, it is very clear Stephen Miller and like-minded people realize that as long as they can enrage their followers they can keep them engaged, and the engaged follower is a very useful pawn. The Trumpian true-believer brand of populism is mostly easily controlled by continually giving it an object to hate and attack. Using outrage to draw an overreaction from opponents then becomes self-fulfilling prophecy of “See, those people really do hate us”; for Stephen Miller, immigration checks many boxes for engagement by enragement politics.
Hatred, especially that which is cynically promoted over hot button policy debates, is the tried and tested method of controlling groups of people to do what you want for people like Stephen Miller. However this current episode of outrage theater concludes, there will be more to come.
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